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Delivery drivers dicing with death

The rise of ecommerce delivery in dense urban environments is raising a heightened road safety challenge. : Norbert Kundrak, Unsplash Unsplash licence The rise of ecommerce delivery in dense urban environments is raising a heightened road safety challenge. : Norbert Kundrak, Unsplash Unsplash licence

The rumble of delivery trucks rattling through dense urban streets is a familiar sound, but behind the convenience of ecommerce lies risk to road users.

The COVID-19 pandemic saw consumers everywhere shift to shopping online, with food and goods arriving on their doorstep at the click of a mouse or tap of a screen. But behind the scenes of this convenience is a mind-bogglingly large fleet of delivery vehicles, the rapid expansion of which is affecting traffic congestion, pollution, and safety as vans compete with other road users for road capacity—and crucially—space at the kerb.

Even before the pandemic, a quiet revolution in purchasing habits was already underway. Between 2014 and 2019, parcel delivery volume in the United States grew by around a billion packages per year. But 2020 saw this figure grow by a whopping five billion packages, accelerating ecommerce adoption by over five years — a trend which experts project will continue to grow.

The impacts of this explosion are being felt deeply in the ‘last mile’ of goods delivery: the phase of the supply chain in which goods are transported to their final destination, like a customer’s home. Dense urban areas are particularly feeling the squeeze, since space is at a premium and there is no room to expand, leading shipping carriers to pay millions of dollars in parking fines each year as a part of the cost of doing business.

Delivery drivers often draw ire for blocking traffic, but research shows they try to avoid doing so when possible. The research, which analysed 622 Reddit comments by delivery drivers (mostly delivering for Amazon), shows a cohort who worry daily about their safety and livelihood. As one driver said: “99 [percent] of the drivers I know will only block traffic if there is absolutely no other option.”

Instead, drivers described trying to stick to tight delivery schedules while navigating limited parking, traffic, and other factors (like accessing apartment buildings) eat up valuable time. Drivers devised strategies to address these challenges, most commonly discussed being the use of unauthorised spaces, even as they do not relish the practice. To be clear, this does not mean drivers parked illegally most of the time, but rather they were concerned they sometimes had to.

One driver told of how “many times [they] are forced to park illegally … which obviously is not right and feels horrible”.

The most discussed types of unauthorised parking included parking on the wrong side of the street, blocking the road, using a no parking zone, and parking on a footpath or kerb. In turn, the main reasons for these behaviours were there was nowhere else to park, it would take too long to find an authorised space, and parking legally would require drivers to engage in unsafe behaviour, like crossing through traffic on a busy street. 

And while parking fines paid by large shipping companies are the stuff of legend, the drivers sampled most frequently said law enforcement left them alone, understanding their options were extremely limited.

A key implication of these driver experiences is the increasing squeeze on day-to-day operations in the last mile consistently sets up potentially unsafe situations, the hazards of which are compounded by the need to hurry. 

“When you are parked on a busy road do you ever think this could be the day a driver rear ends the van and kills me?” one driver asked in a post

Another replied: “I’m standing in the back of the van hearing cars and trucks whip past and praying I don’t rag doll like an unsecured box.”

On crossing the road, another driver said, “I’ve almost been hit twice trying to cross a busy road. I would rather be fired or ticketed [than] die holding an Amazon package.”

These insights about driver concern added to investigative journalism suggesting the increasing influx of rapidly moving freight into the last mile of the transportation system is causing casualties among other road users.

Though implementation presents a major challenge, a litany of innovative solutions are available as cities look to respond to the continued growth of ecommerce and “last mile” urban freight. 

Freight demand management solutions like microhubs, where freight can be brought to a central neighbourhood location before being delivered by modes like a cargo bicycle, and pick-up points/lockers, where packages can be left to later be collected by recipients, can drastically reduce the amount of driving required for a vehicle to deliver packages, reducing congestion and safety hazards. Kerb management systems, like commercial vehicle loading zones,  reservation systems, and loading zone pricing help to ensure available space at the kerb for deliveries.

Most promising, however, is the opportunity for cities to implement safety initiatives, rethinking the design and use of their streets. US city streets are designed to accommodate large vehicles and dedicate most of their kerb space to personal vehicle parking, leaving vulnerable road users (bicyclists and pedestrians) and freight delivery personnel to vie for what is left. Forward-thinking urban planners, however, are focusing on street designs that reprioritise street uses to reduce conflicts between freight, vulnerable road users, and motorists, while redesigned freight and service vehicles can more harmoniously navigate these spaces.

Evan Iacobucci is a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His work focuses on transportation behaviour, specifically how people perceive and interact with the world around them, and how their attitudes and perceptions relate to their support for transport policy. Current projects focus on urban freight, car-free travel, and the impacts of COVID-19 on the future of transportation.

Noreen McDonald is chair of the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her work focuses on the impacts of technology and policy change on American communities. Current projects focus on planning for urban freight and reducing transportation barriers to healthcare.

Their research was undertaken with funding from the Southeastern Transportation Research, Innovation, Development and Education Center (STRIDE).

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

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